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In the wake of Al Franken, Democrats should revise how they reacted to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal

David Usborne
Democrats must learn from their mistakes during – and after – the Clinton scandal: AFP

It’s winter, the days are short but Washington DC is ablaze with a brand new sex scandal reaching the highest levels of the Democratic Party. The rest of the world watches in bafflement. Look at the United States, founded by the Puritans from England, once again getting itself all in a lather about matters of the flesh. When will the country ever grow up?

This could be now. Democrats are indeed in a spin thanks to allegations made by a radio personality in Los Angeles that she was sexually abused while on a tour entertaining troops overseas in 2006 by Al Franken. He was a comedian then, but now, in his second term as a senator from Minnesota, he has become one of the party’s most effective policy cheerleaders.

But I am talking about twenty years ago when then President Bill Clinton was confronting allegations that he had once conducted a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old former intern in the White House named Monica Lewinsky and lying about it under oath. He eventually got impeached for it by the House of Representatives but survived an ensuing trial in the US Senate.

The Lewinsky uproar was widely seen abroad as further evidence that America was still altogether too queasy about sex. We in the media do love an easy stereotype. A God-fearing and moralising nation that still hadn’t shaken its puritan heritage. Foreign commentators – so much more sophisticated, of course – doused America in a torrent of mocking condescension.

“Wanting to know everything about a man is an essentially totalitarian practice,” declared an editorial at the time in the French daily Sud-Ouest. ‘’It is this puritan tyranny which sometimes imbues the beautiful American democracy with an unfortunate resemblance to police states.”

Well, the country has grown up, but not in the way those who tut-tutted the investigators of Clinton, notably independent counsel Kenneth Starr, back then would have imagined. Never have attitudes changed more rapidly, of course, than in the past few weeks as women have come forward, one after another, publicly to accuse men, often men in power, of having sexually abused or humiliated them. First to face such allegations was Harvey Weinstein, then came Louis CK, and then Kevin Spacey. Now it’s Senator Franken and, in Alabama, Senate candidate, Roy Moore.

Looking back from the perspective of today, it’s clear that America did not overreact to the carnal sins of Clinton. The Democrat hierarchy, in the US Senate in particular, successfully circled the wagons around him. Protecting Bill and keeping the White House in Democrat control was their first and only concern. Tremendous energies have been expended over the years since, to polish away the smudges on Clinton’s reputation. His presidency was one of prosperity and global calm, remember. What scandals?

The message to women was clear: if you’ve been groped, mauled or worse by a man, especially those with money and position, you’d be better off not speaking about it, because they will win in the end – an unfortunate message indeed for any political organisation to deliver and certainly for Democrats who fancy themselves the defenders of fairness and social enlightenment.

Both parties in America must now examine their consciences. The allegations by multiple women against Moore in Alabama, mostly concerning unwanted advances on them when they were in their teens and he in his thirties, has split the Republican Party in two, as leaders in Washington DC demand he withdraw from the special US Senate race set for mid-December while he and leaders of the party in Alabama itself are telling them to drop dead.

Last year, Republicans squirmed as a leaked videotape showed their candidate for president, Donald Trump, precisely boasting how his celebrity status made preying on women so easy. “I don’t even wait,” he said. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... grab them by the pussy.” Party leaders expressed their horror, but that was it. Trump wasn’t forced to withdraw; his campaign rolled on to victory regardless.

Democrats now have their own crisis in the form of Franken. He has admitted to the allegations leveled against him. There is photographic evidence of some of it, specifically his posing with his hands on the breasts of the accuser while she slept on a military plane between appearances on their troop-entertainment tour. But now the party is also being asked to rethink how it responded two full decades ago to Clinton and Lewinsky.

It should. In spite of all the years of reputation repair, the scandal actually hasn’t been forgotten by many Americans. When I tried last year to understand why so many Trump supporters – including female supporters – seemed willing to discount what he’d said on the tapes, the answer I got repeatedly was this: “Trump was just talking about doing bad stuff to women. Clinton actually did it. And he did it in the Oval Office.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, began the process, asserting last week that Clinton should have stepped down. “I think that is the appropriate response,” she said, a startling comment from the holder of the US Senate from New York that was previously Hillary Clinton’s. In 1998 it would have been unthinkable for someone as prominent in the President’s own party to have said such a thing.

But, as Gillibrand herself, went on to comment, “things have changed today”. Indeed they have. The country has done some growing up, especially since the first Weinstein revelations broke in October. But growing up has not meant taking matters of sexual impropriety and abuse less seriously. It has meant taking them more seriously.